It is easy to see why Alberto Moravia's novels lend themselves to cinematic adaptation: there are moments in The Conformist - his classic account of existential angst - that are conceived with such visual clarity that it's almost as if he were writing directions for a screenplay. The pivotal scene at the end of the prologue is a good example. Marcello is 13 years old and he has just committed a terrible crime: he has shot the priest who had been attempting to seduce him. Climbing out of the house where Lino lies dying, Marcello pauses: "Sitting astride the windowsill, he turned his head hastily, casting a long, frightened, cautious look at the open space in front of the house and the car standing outside the door; he knew that if anyone happened to pass at that moment, they could not fail to see him sitting there in the window."
Bernardo Bertolucci filmed The Conformist in 1969, and it is now being reissued by Prion Books as part of a series of novels that have been made into films. Some of the Film Ink series - such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers - will appeal to cinephiles only, but Prion has struck gold with Moravia, for the filmic quality of his imagination was only one element in the repertoire of a brilliant novelist. (Above all, it is Moravia's lucid portrayal of Marcello's psychological torment that distinguishes The Conformist.)
Even as a young boy, Marcello understands that he is not like his friends. They enjoy playing at soldiers, but his predilection for guns has "deeper and obscurer origins" than their "innocent military infatuations". Marcello progresses from beheading flowers to killing lizards, until finally he kills the family cat: "You begin by killing a cat and you end up by killing a man," warns the family cook. Moravia injects such menace into his account of Marcello's childhood that it is no surprise when the cook's prophecy appears to come true.
As he walks away from the house where he shot the priest, Marcello is convinced that his action has marked him for ever: "there was reflected in his consciousness, as in a mirror, the picture of himself, a boy in shorts with some books under his arm, walking down the cypress-bordered drive, an incomprehensible figure full of gloomy foreboding." The visual richness of the scene is matched by its psychological profundity: Marcello's childish sense of his aberrant nature has hardened into a perception of himself as the eternal outsider - a role from which he will never escape. He grows up burdened by a desire to be like other people. He marries a woman he does not love in the hope that she will relieve his crippling sense of deviancy; he relishes the opportunity to serve the fascist government that comes to power in Italy - by colluding with the mass lunacy that grips his country, he hopes to merge with the crowd. Finally, he is entrusted with a gratifyingly important mission when he is sent to Paris to facilitate the murder of an anti-fascist agitator, Quadri.
Marcello imagines that the sacrifice of the benevolent Quadri will atone for Lino's death, but he is wrong. Later, when the war begins, he learns that Lino did not die; he is not a murderer after all, and yet he had arranged Quadri's death to "redeem himself from an imaginary crime". In the end, Marcello is forced to acknowledge that it makes no difference. It was not killing Lino that forced his hand: "even if . . . nothing had happened, he would still have done what he had done simply because, in any case, he would have had to lose his innocence and, consequently, would have desired to regain it. Normality was, precisely, this desire - as wearisome as it was vain - to justify a life trapped in its own original guilt." The sense of normality that Marcello has so ardently pursued is a mirage; it is, paradoxically, his abnormality that makes him normal - a brutal lesson, and one that leaves him with no possible refuge.
Ed Platt's "Leadville: a biography of the A40" is published by Picador in June